AJCS looks at the Algerian movement’s gamble on pacifism in establishing a democratic state

21 April 2019
From left to right: Salem Almahroukey (moderator), Noureddine Bekkis, Abdennour Benantar, and Haoues Taguia (Al Jazeera)

Algeria experts and analysts discussed the role of the military establishment in the current Algerian protest movement and called for a consensual, peaceful roadmap for democratic elections, in which the Algerian army does not play the role of arbiter, like the council in Iran that determines the overriding interest of the system. In a joint public seminar organised by the Al Jazeera Centre for Studies in cooperation with Al Jazeera Mubasher on Monday, 16 April 2019, and titled “Algeria’s Protests: The Prospects of Pacifism in Establishing a Democratic State,” participants affirmed the need to hold elections without regime oversight. They stressed that the Algerian army is not prepared to clash and it is not in its interest to do so to oversee the post-Bouteflika phase.

The complexities of the Algerian equation
In his explanation of the roots of the protest movement underway in Algeria since February 22, 2019, when demonstrators came out against Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth presidential term, Dr. Noureddin Bekkis, professor of sociology at the University of Algiers, said that the popular movement did not appear from nowhere, but was the product of the repressive social and political situation throughout the Bouteflika years. He said that Algeria was the only country to see thousands of protests every year making socioeconomic demands, noting that many of these tactics, which resemble civil disobedience, can be seen in the current Algerian movement. Bekkis pointed to changes in Algerian society, particularly the increasing numbers of university students and the development of youth culture, as well as Algerians’ rising aspirations and the empty promises of reform made by the authorities during elections. In addition, clerics have lost their credibility due to the tepidness of religious discourse and their delayed action to join the protest movement. He said that increasing, persistent dissatisfaction among various social factions had been converted into a national movement that moved beyond factional protests thanks to “a sick man entering the race for a fifth presidential term, which showed the people that he did not have the capacity to lead them.”

Bekkis said that the current Algerian dilemma is the lack of ready alternatives, since the people are punishing anyone who worked with the regime and forgiving no one. He explained that the movement derives its strength from its geographic dispersion throughout all Algerian provinces, which is unprecedented, and that the massive numbers of people taking part in demonstrations weakens the legitimacy on which the regime is based. In Bekkis’s opinion, the Algerian movement thinks it is dealing with a duplicitous regime and therefore is concerned about guarantees for an open political course, in the belief that the movement is capable of producing political elites to lead the coming phase.

Is the policy of placation succeeding?
For his part, Dr. Abdennour Benantar, a lecturer at the University of Paris VIII, believes that the political error made by the Algerian authorities lies in its failure to recognise that the era of submissiveness is over. He noted that political shifts come at once and societies develop from the inside. He explained that the authorities typically pursued a policy of placating popular demands before reverting to the status quo, but now there is a rejection of the entire government from top to bottom.

Speaking of the stance of some Western states, especially France, on the Algerian movement, Benantar said that there is one basic rule in relations between Western powers and Arab states: these powers do not back democratic demands in the Arab world when it conflicts with their interests. He added that there is a fear that the unrest in Algeria could spread to neighbouring states and harm the security and economic interests of Western states, particularly as concerns migration issues, oil, and the loss of the regional bulwark provided by these regimes, which act as a security buffer for Western states. But, he said, such stability is ultimately an illusion.

Obstacles to the democratic transition
Mehdi Mabrouk, the former Tunisian minister of culture and the director of the Tunisian office of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, addressed the panel by satellite link. He said that the Tunisian example is not the model for the future of the Algerian movement because the political history of the two countries is completely different. He explained that the nation state in Tunisia was built by national elites educated abroad and without any revolutionary mythology or legitimacy. In contrast, the Algerian state was founded on the concept of emancipatory revolution and is based on revolutionary legitimacy. Mabrouk said that there were three obstacles in the way of Algeria following the Tunisian model: 1) the military establishment in Algeria believes it above society and a caretaker of it; 2) political culture and the fear of the black decade, whereas Tunisia has no such phobia; and 3) the lack of a clear vision and roles for civil society organisations in Algeria. There is no leadership to embrace this incredible burst from Algerian society and translate it into practical solutions through dialogue.

Mabrouk said that the Algerian movement is having political and security repercussions in neighbouring countries, among them the military offensive by retired General Khalifa Haftar to take Tripoli and the support given to Haftar by some political parties in Tunisia. He acknowledged that Algeria is headed for change because the appeal of freedom crosses borders, noting that what is happening in Algeria would have ramifications for the coming elections in Tunisia. Mabrouk said that peoples in the region would be more cooperative, integrated, and harmonious if the totalitarian regimes were eliminated. He advocated a roadmap for democratic elections and hoped the Algerian army would not act like the Iranian supreme council that determines the higher interest in Iran.

Synthesising constitutionalism and consensus
Haoues Taguia, a researcher at AJSC, said that the Algerian authorities saw the movement as a threat to the status quo and its policies based on legitimacy, institutions and individuals. This establishment undertook change only insofar as it preserved the regime. He said that the goal of abandoning the presidency was to preserve the rest of the regime, noting that for the regime the movement represents a change in the meaning of legitimacy itself, from paternal custodianship in the name of revolutionary legitimacy to popular legitimacy. Taguia said that the constitution is referenced as an authority in a selective way, in order to preserve the status quo. The people in power derive their legitimacy from custodianship, he said, whereas today legitimacy is based on consent and popular rule.

Taguia also said that the Algerian movement had established new conditions and opened broader horizons than the opposition by demanding the end of the regime; the opposition, in contrast, acts within the narrow margins permitted by the regime. He stressed that the movement was now dictating conditions to the authorities and setting the agenda. It has become an agent capable of managing the political landscape, as seen in its rejection of Bouteflika’s fifth term. This stage requires oversight by individuals who enjoy the trust of the popular movement, and the resurgence of the opposition and its support for the movement is a victory. Taguia maintained that the Algerian movement is offering something fundamental: the insistence that trustworthy leaders preside over the post-Bouteflika phase so that elections can be held without regime sponsorship. He said that the Algerian army has no motivation for a confrontation and it is not in its interest to contest the management of the transitional phase. He expected a trajectory that combines constitutional authority with a consensus among relevant parties, which would be beneficial for everyone, since it would build on, rather than demolish, what already exists.